Taking on the Vatican at cricket

The Authors eleven pose in front of St Peter's Basilica Image copyright Tom Holland

The Vatican is not traditionally known as a hotbed of cricketing talent, so a team in holy orders shouldn't prove too much for a touring XI of authors from the UK, should it? Not so, as the historian Tom Holland recounts.

"Quo vadis?" As we rattled over the flagstones of the Appian Way, the ancient road that leads south out of Rome, our driver pointed to the words emblazoned on a restaurant awning. "It means, 'Where are you going?'"

I knew the story. "Quo vadis?" was what St Peter was supposed to have said when, fleeing the emperor Nero's persecution, he had met the risen Christ on the Appian Way. "I am going to Rome," Jesus had answered, "there to be crucified again." Peter, shamed by his master's example, had turned back. Arrested, he had been martyred in the Vatican. Catholic tradition commemorates him as Rome's first bishop - the first Pope.

Two-thousand years on, and the Appian Way, with its legend of Peter meeting Christ, and all the various churches and catacombs that line it, is a place sacred to Christians from across the world. Now, though, it has a new claim to fame. I had come with 10 other middle-aged Englishmen on a short visit to Rome that was to culminate in a field just off the ancient road.

Already, on our trip, we had attended a homily by the Pope, shared a mass in a crypt beneath St Peter's, and been hosted to lunch by the Pontifical College. All these experiences, though, were mere warm-up's - antipasti to the main course. Two days after our arrival in Rome, I and my fellow travellers were off to the Appian Way on a most improbable mission - to play the Vatican at cricket.

Image caption The author prepares to take on the Vatican

It was a return match. The previous summer, the Vatican cricket team had come to the UK on their first ever tour, a visit that had culminated in an inter-faith clash against the Anglican Church. The team to which I belong, the Authors XI, had played one of the warm-up matches. We had lost off the last ball. Now we had our chance for revenge.

As we arrived at the hippodrome which hosts the Vatican's cricket pitch, I had to pinch myself. In the distance I could see the Alban Hills, where the ancestors of Romulus had lived before the founding of Rome, and the Pope has his summer residence. The view could hardly have been more Italian. Yet there I was, in whites and cap, preparing to take part in the most English of sports.

Except that cricket is no longer exclusively - or even principally - an English sport. The Vatican team included a single priest from the UK, but otherwise consisted entirely of young and alarmingly fit-looking seminarians from the Indian subcontinent.

Walking from the bus to the makeshift hut which served the ground as a pavilion, I spoke to one of them. Aamir Bhatti, the Vatican's wicketkeeper, was from Karachi in Pakistan. He was in his fourth year at the Pontifical Seminary, he told me, and in another couple of years would be returning to his home country as a priest.

And might he be heading there before that, I asked, on a Vatican cricket tour? He smiled. "I would love to," he said. "It would be a first step of friendship - and a testimony to our faith."

Sport in the Vatican

Image copyright Getty Images
  • Pope John Paul II (a goalkeeper in his youth) established a Vatican sport department in 2004 with the intention of "reinvigorating the tradition (of sport) within the Christian community"
  • As well as a cricket club, Vatican City has its own football team, although it is one of only nine sovereign states in the world not recognised by Fifa (interestingly, the UK is among the others)
  • Pope Francis remains a fan of San Lorenzo, the Buenos Aires football team he has supported since childhood

So might a Victorian have spoken. In Britain, the association between sport and godliness is no longer all it used to be, but in St Peter's, it still has considerable purchase.

Father Eamonn O'Higgins, the manager of the Vatican cricket team, and its chaplain, confirmed for me that the football-loving Holy Father had readily given them his blessing. Pope Francis had sat for a photo with the touring party to play the Church of England, and even signed their bats.

Cricket was believed by the Vatican to be a part of God's purpose. The tour of the UK had been used by the Catholic and Anglican authorities to promote the Global Freedom Network, a joint initiative against slavery and people trafficking. Looking to the future, Father Eamonn shared his wicketkeeper's hope that cricket might provide the Vatican with "a bridge of friendship" to the Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists of the subcontinent.

Image copyright St Peter's CC
Image caption The opposition: St Peter's CC, with Pope Francis

"Quo vadis?" Sitting on the outfield, watching as our batsmen slumped to ignominious defeat against the bowling of assorted Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan seminarians, I suspected that I was watching the future of the Catholic Church.

Its gaze, at the dawning of the third Christian millennium, is firmly set on Asia - and unlike St Peter fleeing Rome down the Appian Way, it would seem to have no intention of running away from the challenge.

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